It’s our last chance. Tomorrow we leave for home. We’ve been tantalisingly close to ‘The Big One’ but although we’ve heard him, even smelt him, our quarry is proving elusive. We’ve got three hours to get a sighting before we must turn back. Our small party snakes up the mist-lined track. Blind hope spurs us on. Out of the murk, a menacing growl. ‘If I say “turn and run” then no arguments!’ comes the disembodied voice of Manuel, our lead guide. I know this is aimed primarily at Jim, the youngest and most determined of our group who was earlier heard to mutter, ‘I’m sure as hell not leaving without eyeballing the beast’.
The trail is steep here, slick with saturated vegetation. I concentrate on staying perpendicular. When it flattens a little I distract myself with edited highlights of my first trip to Costa Rica. Despite the unseasonable weather in this, the supposedly dry season, the country has intoxicated me.
I re-play the previous day’s rainforest trek, zooming in on the miniature world of its seething floor: silent regiments of leaf-cutter ants, marching in single file bearing their leaf shields aloft; a rhinoceros beetle, invincible in his polished armour; frogs no bigger than a man’s thumbnail, pulsating clones of the shining brooches we had gawped at in the museum of pre-Colombian gold in San Jose.
I conjure up the rainbow-clouds of birds that have dazzled me every morning during the brief interludes of sunshine: birds whose mere names – rose-throated becard, golden-hooded tanager, red-legged honeycreeper – will be sufficient to trigger an explosion of colour on my retina long after I have returned to the gull-grey skies of Wales.
We pause for a breather in a crater-shaped dell, the grass piercingly green. White star-shaped flowers are strung like Christmas lights on the tall bushes. Kenneth, the second guide, squats: tender fingers move aside a clump of ferns to expose a delicate slipper orchid. Name and form are so perfectly aligned that I fully expect to see Cinderella emerge from the foliage. Jim barely gives it a glance; he’s pacing to and fro, emitting gusty sighs, backpack jiggling. The growling starts again, louder, more prolonged. A huddled confab takes place between Kenneth, prepared to push on, and Manuel who hisses phrases like, ‘insurance risks’ and ‘sulphur levels’. ‘Where’s Luis when you need him?’ whispers Jim.
Ah, yes, the self-styled Loco Luis. How he would relish the frisson of excitement in today’s excursion. He was responsible one of our most memorable expeditions, a rafting trip down the Peñas Blancas, although that too, was almost abandoned. Upstream at the launch site, the river was swollen and littered with broken branches, casualties of the recent storms. Or were they in fact caimans? Luis’ not-quite Oscar-worthy shrieks would have had us believe so. Having failed to terrorise us with reptilian look-alikes, he had delighted in raising adrenaline levels as high as the flood water by spinning the inflatable craft round and round as he balanced, one-legged, on the lip.
At least that day we had seen what we set out for, and more besides. We had travelled only a few hundred yards downstream when we discovered Luis’ other, more valuable trick: mimicry. Without warning he tilted back his head and uttered a series of guttural grunts and squeals. Almost immediately, both banks reverberated with a similar cacophony; and then we spied them, Costa Rica’s famous howler monkeys, loping across the tree tops. Eyes shining, Luis gestured to a higher clump a few yards from where the group of black primates had paused in their acrobatics. ‘It’s her; it’s Blondy,’ he gabbled. And there she posed, diva-like, her best side to our waiting cameras, a rare albino female.
No fauna today, rare or otherwise. It’s looking increasingly likely that the slipper orchid may have to be our consolation prize. The afternoon is closing in; the mizzle seems to have redoubled its efforts to thwart us. Manuel pronounces, in tones that brook no argument, that if conditions don’t improve by the time we reach the next resting point, we turn back. Not even Jim protests. I can see defeat in the slump of his shoulders; his back pack hangs forlornly at his side, no longer bouncing in rhythm with his stride. We plod on. After a little while, though, I become aware that the steady drip, drip from hood to collar has stopped, along with my obsessive-compulsive spectacle wiping.
As we round a corner to an exposed westerly slope, the day has one last surprise to offer. In less time than it takes to say ‘photo-opportunity’ an imperious burst of sunlight sweeps aside the obsequious clouds. We look across the plain to see ‘El Grande’ silhouetted against a brochure-blue sky. Stripped of his mist-sodden mask and cape, Volcán Arenal flaunts his chiselled peak and sculpted flanks.